Sunday, 17th April, 2011
Stranger in the Forest (I)
In 1982, Eric Hansen, the author of ‘Stranger in the Forest – On Foot Across Borneo ‘ laid out the best map of Borneo he could find (mapped by the British Ministry of Defence) on the floor of the long house he was temporarily staying in, for the benefit of his two, about-to-be, Penan jungle guides (Penan is pronounced Pen an ; the second syllable is stressed). They pressed down the folds with the palms of their hands in bewilderment. They’d never seen a map before. Eric pointed at a spot on the map indicating where he wanted to get to. One of the guides placed a stick, a stone and a leaf, in a line, in a space on the floor, next to the map. The stick represented a river, the stone a mountain, and the leaf, the Kelabit highlands. This was the journey that lay ahead. This was the map they understood. Eric folded his map away feeling quite childish and inadequate.
Leaving the long house they crossed the nearby village’s paddy fields soon reaching the edge of the forest, which was primary; unaltered for millions of years. The trees stood over 200 feet tall. The only food they had with them was 25 kg of red-tinted hill rice and tea. They had no compass, medicine or radio. Once inside it was dark and cool. Eric wouldn’t see the sun for the next four weeks. He needed to be committed. They walked for 8-10 hours a day covering four miles each day. There was no path; just streams, slimy rocks, steep muddy ridges, slippery roots and steep ledges. The walking was hard. John and Tingang Na, the two guides, knew the way from a combination of the changing direction of the streams, certain vines on certain trees and the angles of sunlight breaking through the canopy overhead. To an outsider the forest interior all looks the same; navigation markers are scarce: ‘Take 2 steps off the trail, get disorientated, and that’s the last anyone sees of you.’ (SITF)
According to the eloquent Jonathan Raban, the discovery of the compass profoundly altered our relationship with the sea. We no longer needed to try and understand it, engage with it. Instead it became a mass of water to get across as efficiently as possible, in a straight line:
‘So the helmsman looked away from the sea, wedding himself instead to a geometrical abstraction that had no tangible reality in nature. Possession of a compass soon rendered obsolete a great body of inherited, instinctual knowledge, and rendered the sea itself – in fair weather, at least – as a void, an empty space to be traversed by a numbered thumb line.’ (Passage To Juneau, p 97)
In contrast to:
‘Once upon a time, people made their way across the sea by reading the surface, shapes, and colours of the water. On clear nights, they took their directions from the stars; by day, they sailed by the wind and waves………….Wind made itself most useful for navigational purposes by generating swells. Whatever the fickle gusts of the moment, the prevailing seasonal wind was registered in the stubborn movement of the sea. Swell continues for many days, and sometimes thousands of miles, after the wind that first raised it has blown itself out. Islands, because they deflect the direction of swell, can be ‘felt’ from a great distance by a sensitive pilot. As the depth of the sea decreases, the swell steepens, warning of imminent landfall.
Sailing by swell entailed an intense concentration on the character of the sea itself. Wave shape was everything. A single wave is likely to be moulded by several forces: the local wind; a dominant, underlying swell; and, often, a weaker swell coming from a third direction. Early navigators had to be in communion with every lift of the bow as the sea swept under the hull in order to sense each component in the wave and deduce from them the existence of unseen masses of land. (Passage To Juneau – A Sea And Its Meanings, p93)
It was perhaps this significant shift in our relationship to the sea that resulted in the difficulties that early 19th century explorers experienced when observing the day to day movements of the native Indians living about the coast of the North West Passage. These early explorers, who were looking upon this region for the first time and had the privilege of naming it for future generations to come, couldn’t understand why the Indians were taking so long to go from one point to another in their canoes? Why were they making constant diversions? Why were they never in a hurry? While the sea, for us, had become an obstacle to be traversed, between two points; a space, for the Indians, it was something else, altogether; a place:
‘The sea provided the Indians with a neighbourhood, around which they loitered, scuffed their heels, and traded small talk. While its lower depths harboured beings, like Komogwa, as dangerous and mercurial in character as those of the deep forest, the water’s surface was a broad public arena on which most of daily life took place. George Vancouver, keeping an anxious watch on the comings and goings of the canoes, their apparently random, zigzag routes, might usefully have cast his mind back to his native town of King’s Lynn, where on the Saturday market in the long shadow of St. Margaret’s he must have seen the same patterns, advances, retreats, crossings-over, and deviations that sociable pedestrians practice everywhere. Indians were moving on the sea exactly as whites moved on dry land; but the whites steadfastly failed to wise up to this basic transposition of land and sea, place and space.’ (p105)
A little before the above quoted passage, Raban expresses the following:
‘Two world views were in collision; and the poverty of white accounts of these canoe journeys reflects the colonialists’ blindness to the native sea. They didn’t get it – couldn’t grasp the fact that for Indians the water was a place, and the great bulk of the surrounding land mere undifferentiated space.
The whites had entered a looking-glass world, where their own most basic terms were reversed. Their whole focus was directed toward the land: its natural harbours, its timber, its likely spots for settlement and agriculture. They travelled everywhere equipped with mental chainsaws and at a glance could strip a hill of its covering forest and see there a future of hedges, fields, houses, churches. They viewed the sea as a medium of access to the all-important land.”
Substitute ‘sea’ for ‘land’, and vice-versa, in that paragraph, and one is very close to the world that emerges from Indian stories, where the forest is the realm of danger, darkness, exile, solitude, and self-extinction, while the sea and its beaches represent safety, light, home, society, and the continuation of life.’ (p 103)
Certain parallels can be drawn here, regarding the Penans. Early foreign explorers of Borneo were wary of using Penans as guides. It was a source of endless frustration. These early explorers wanted to get from A to B as quickly as possible, marking the route on their blank maps. However, the Penans were unable to operate like this; to them the journey was a series of diversions, and fortuitous encounters, depending on how they felt and where the hunting led them. Only the bountiful present existed. The concept of a schedule was alien to them.
The Penan have never seen or heard the ocean. They only know their patch of inland forest, perhaps comprising 200 sq kilometres. They’re not familiar with the stars above either, as they are only occasionally afforded glimpses of it through rare gaps in the forest canopy. Their stories; their oral mythologies are devoid of references concerning oceans and the heavens above. These two aspects of our universe are not part of their schemata.
Their average life expectancy is forty years. Rarely does anyone live as long as fifty. They seem to inhabit the immediate present. Their concept of time is measured in terms of hunting. Chronological time is utterly alien to them. They will understand their uncle’s house is five hunts away. Distance is understood in terms of feeling, not mileage. So for instance, a day’s walk to the river for fishing and another day back would be understood to be very short, as it would be pleasurable. However, a two hour walk to your friend’s camp to tell him you’d slept with his wife would be considered a long journey, in terms of feeling. Perhaps, similarly with us – if we’ve had a really long day, it usually hasn’t been easy; time flies when things are good.
There isn’t much crime amongst the Penans; perhaps at most, a bit of theft or adultery. According to Penans, the worst crime you can commit is to be stingy; tight-fisted. The gravity of the crime is weighed up by an elected mediator – law man, according to how much the victim’s feelings have been hurt. For instance, adultery is deemed to be quite a sensitive issue. The compensation for this is three pigs and one month’s labour.
Eric’s two guides were Penan. The Penan lived far inland, deep in the dark damp jungle, remote from anywhere. They’re shy and (at the time this book was written) had retained their traditional way of life. They were nomadic hunters and gatherers – thriving on the abundance of wild animals, sago flour, edible plants, fish and jungle fruit. Living in perfect symbiotic relationship with their environment, they carry few possessions and travel in groups of 25 to 40, changing camp every three to twelve weeks. (Stranger in the Forest p 59) They are famous for being the most skilled hunters and most at home in the jungle. They are short, a little over five feet. They have pale skin due to their sunless world. When Eric first spotted them in a bustling trading town, a few months back, they were walking around, always in single file. They know no other way. They are so accustomed to walking like this in their rainforest habitat.
For breakfast, Tingang Na cracked open the section of charred bamboo filled with a leaf-wrapped tube of rice and succulent morsels of fatty pig meat. He tapped this mixture onto a broad communal leaf, and we squatted in a circle, eating with our fingers. (Ibid, P66) During this time spent journeying to the Penan homeland, Eric became accustomed to eating foods such as bee larvae and rice soup, roasted rattan shoots, boa constrictors, lizards, monkeys, bats, and the large animals – pigs and deer. (P78)
Eric would have lasted a very short time in the forest without his companions. He was quickly humbled by their expertise: A piece of thin bark placed between two small river rocks became a drinking fountain; a leaf plucked off a certain tree, folded double, and sucked on to create a vibrating sound, would call the inquisitive barking deer to within shotgun range; a vine known as kulit elang, when pounded and dipped in water and scrubbed on our ankles, would keep leeches from climbing up our legs. As we advanced through the rain forest, fruit trees laden with loquats, giant grapefruit, durians, mangosteens, guavas, rambutans, and jackfruit appeared at regular intervals, and it rarely took more than hour to set up camp and collect food. (P66)
Monday, 18th April, 2011
Stranger in the Forest (II)
After a 2 week journey in the forest, they arrived at a Penan camp. That evening a fire was lit and there was dancing. The Penans don’t read or write. Everything is expressed through song, story and dance. Erics’ guides re-enacted some of the most memorable moments of their journey, through dance. Some of it was quite humorous. The Penans love to laugh, poke fun and are unashamedly uninhibited. Towards the end of the evening, a young woman stood up and began to dance. She was still unmarried, but had reached age. She danced in front of the fire, facing the men, so she was lit up. She danced sensually, rubbing her crotch and breasts vigorously and thrusting her hips. She was relaying a message to the men that she was ready and had an aching longing to be coupled. Sadly, all this dancing around a fire was done without drink. The Christian missionaries had done away with it. A few years previous, there would have been ample rice wine and whiskey. The Penans had loved to drink, before the instilling of religion.
In 1976, six years before, Eric had first visited Sarawak. During this time, he went down river and visited an Iban longhouse. (a traditional Longhouse is made of wood, and elevated on stilts, originally for defensive reasons, and to keep away from snakes and leeches. Anything built on the ground would be consumed by micro-organisms within days. It’s about 200 feet long with a 200 foot verandah, and the entire extended family live in it. The river is usually in front, where washing and bathing happens, as well as it being an access point.) He’d been fortunate. He’d happened to bump into an Iban, returning to his family home after working a 9 month stint at a logging station. This visit may have also coincided with the rice harvest festival. Apparently, drinking goes on for three straight days to celebrate the successful harvesting of rice. They arrived as evening was drawing in. Two hundred people were gathered. He was immediately required to down a glass of rice wine and rice whiskey. These were constantly refilled. It’s a grave offense to turn down drink. He was asked to give a performance, then handed a live rooster and asked to go around the gathering, hitting people over the head with it. At first, he was disbelieving. When he realized the sincerity of this request, he began to tentatively oblige. The main mother of the house, a large whale of a woman with enormous naked breasts grabbed the rooster off him in mocking disgust, and proceeded to kill the rooster with the severity of blows she reigned down on her brood. This ritual is a traditional form of blessing. The party roared on until first light the following morning. Fights broke out; fighters were tied to posts to cool down before being permitted to rejoin the orgy of excess; stories were acted out; songs sung; mocking sex simulated; vomiting; people falling off the verandah; many people going unconscious. There is a film called the ‘Hangover’, about a group of old college friends sharing a stag night in Las Vegas. One of the main protagonists wakes up on a hotel room floor, in his underwear, in the early hours to see a tiger prowling around the room. I believe there’s also a rooster of some sort. He has no recollection of how he reached this state. A lot of the film is spent trying to piece the night back together into some form of coherent progression. Eric’s description of this longhouse party reminded me of it. The Iban are infamous for their fondness of drink, and headhunting expeditions in a previous time.
Eric left Sarawak, a short time after this. A lasting impression of warmth, kindness, hospitality and I suppose a kind of refreshing uncomplicatedness had imprinted itself in his heart, regarding the land of the Hornbill. He sailed away reluctantly. Six years later, he returned. He went back to visit this longhouse. Sadly, it wasn’t there any longer. Instead, there was a logging station in place of it, and the river had turned brown. At the start of the 80’s, the global demand for hardwood soared and so did the price. Inevitably the state began to export.
Monday, 25 April, 2011
It’s rained heavily over the past few days. Everything is soaked and green. This morning, at my most remote school, in the centre of Perpat village, a peeling, rickety, collection of wooden huts on stilts, set a few yards back from the river bank, I spent some time, as I smoked a cigarette, watching a man systematically cutting the wet grass of the football field, with a strimmer. He’d cut half of it by lunch time. Over lunch, I learnt that this man was Haswandi’s father. Haswandi is one of the teachers I mentor. He’s young with a chunky full face, about as full as the moon. He’s chubby and strongly built, humble and very solid. His father is a small time farmer and fisherman and tends the school grounds when needed. The headmaster of the school taught Haswandi in the very same school. Haswandi has lived in the village all his life. Over lunch, he expressed his gratitude and admiration for his father who is 48 and still going strong. He was most grateful for the confidence and encouragement his father gave him in being the person he is today. Walking with me, as far as the boat pier he pointed at the hut he and his parents used to live in. At a time since then he has managed to secure a bank loan with his civil service job status (teacher) and he and his parents now live in an improved house. He’s married with one child. At the end of the jetty, as I was stepping onto the boat, he pointed at a small fragile-looking canoe, tucked up on the bank, amidst some shrubs. It was his father’s. They used to go fishing a lot together. Haswandi was beaming today as his confidence in his English is growing with each visit I make. As is his teaching. He seems to be taking everything on board.
A tree with no name with a flower blossom I can’t name
I was away in Kuching all last week. I got back late Friday evening. The following morning, after waking up, I stepped out onto my back verandah. It was close and sticky. Rain was due and it came. It came down in straight sheets, off the eaves. I put the palms of my hands up close to it. Like a radiator, but not a radiator, a cool coolness pulsed in waves all over me. The alteration in temperature was acutely palpable. At the same time I noticed an early flowering in a tree not three metres in front of me. I don’t know the name of the tree but it has delicious green leaves not unlike a mango tree. This early blossoming of flower, which wasn’t in existence before I left for Kuching, has the appearance of a prickly, speckled red-pebble-dash jumper; a texture akin to branches of coral; soft coral that ripples in any trace of current. The rain that Saturday morning released its fragrance. After being in the city for some days, it was with some gratitude, and a sly reluctant smile, that I breathed in this very morning.
Tuesday, 26 April, 2011
Yesterday afternoon, having just opened my eyes after a brief escape from the torpor of a tropical afternoon, I was vacantly, but contently, gazing mindlessly outside my living room window, which I naturally look out on, when lying on my back, on my bed, in my bedroom, with the door ajar and my head propped up on two pillows. The sky was grey and against this I watched a giant green banana leaf sway and swivel, gyrate and bend to a silent beat. The performance took up the whole window pane. It was like the giant, inflated head of a cobra moving to the pipe music of a turban-clad Indian. Its dance went through many subtle variations with the undulating breeze. I was entranced.
Normally walking the beach in the evening, I come across the short gulpish cries of what look like sea swiftlets, spraying themselves, like a net, atop the young waves petering onto the shore, and the narky cries of the solitary kimono-blue Kingfishers. However the other evening, I was delighted to come across another conversation. It was a beautiful sound like a happy-high-end –summer babbling brook; a mellifluous tinkle to the babble; silvery. It was coming from five luminous, lime – green birds, strutting on the sand on the edge of the Pine trees, bordering the beach and the plantations behind. Perhaps I should get a pocket bird guide.
A Mosquito and a bundle of Vulnerability
The other day having lunch at my local, I found myself transfixed at the sight of the owners’ eldest daughter’s youngest daughter (8 months) resting against the beam (standing up) that frames the entrance, opening onto the street. She was quietly by herself, absorbed by something or someone across the street. She must have been this cute, tiny bundle of stillness for several minutes (I’d never even come close to witnessing this stretch of self possession before). All of a sudden, she began to cry quite forcefully; her little self, crumpling. It was a puzzling instantaneous transformation. A few minutes later, I think I surmised the reason for the outburst. There was a prominent red welt on her forehead, glowing. A mosquito had alighted on her, in her moment of absorption and obviously taken some of her blood. But the poor little thing had no idea what caused the pain; this little punctuation mark of vulnerability in a vast unpredictable universe of possibility.
Tai Chi at the end of the day
Yesterday evening I went to the beach later than usual. It meant that I only had the faint glow from the mercury ocean, separating the shoreline that I was silently running on in my bare feet, from the impending night. I did my post-run Tai Chi in the shallows of the incoming tide; ankle deep. As I rotated, patterning the wholeness of the universe, the early stars began to pickle the sky, like seedlings; the final patch of daylight fading into the end of the sea.